Ran is almost invariably described as legendary Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa’s samurai version of Shakespeare’s King Lear. And why not? The story was originally stimulated by a story Kurosawa came across about the Sengoku-era warlord Mōri Motonari and his three very loyal and brave sons. What would the story be like, Kurosawa mused, if instead of being loyal and good the sons had been disloyal and villainous? Only after making very significant headway into the development of this idea did its parallels with King Lear and his three daughters begin to reveal. From that point forward, Kurosawa recognized he was onto something great. Something big. Something truly epic and possibly even career-capping.
So epic in scope and ambitious would this film be that Kurosawa devoted significant chunks of the decade to meticulously storyboarding every single shot in the movie in the form of a paintings which would eventually form a companion book to the film. During this interim between inspiration and execution, Kurosawa made an extraordinary masterpiece titled Kagemusha which he would later refer to as being a sort of dry run in preparation for mounting Ran. That same time lag also had a debilitating effect on Kurosawa’s eyesight which resulted in the direction of the film being a true example of the collaborative process involved in creating a single artistic vision: assistants would be needed to ensure the set-ups of individual shots matched the vision precipitously outlined in those painted storyboard images.
Those images paint a story that cost little to tell to the lucky person viewing them, but transformed into movie scenes would wind up becoming not only the most expensive film Kurosawa ever directed, but the most expensive film directed in Japan to that point. While going on to create a legacy as one of the greatest accomplishments in a career punctuated with classic films, Ran never did manage to do much more than break even at the box office. Ran was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Director for Kurosawa. The one Oscar that Ran actually won went to Emi Wada for Best Costume Design. That award was deserved in part as an example of Kurosawa’s obsessive attention to detail when making the film. Over the course of two years, Wada’s team created 1400 handmade military uniforms and suits of armor for the cast. A replica of an actual castle which had long ago burned down was especially built on Mt. Fuji so that miniatures would not be required which might imperil the verisimilitude which Kurosawa to be so essential for conveying the larger than life themes and action sequences his painted storyboards compelled. Such efforts resulted in Ran being named Best Film of the Year by National Society of Film Critics while taking home honors for Best Foreign Language Film at the New York Film Critics Circle Awards.
Contrary to what some believe, Ran was not Akira Kurosawa's last film.